Abingdon’s Dry Killers- Appalachian True Crime

jwkendricksJ.W. Kendricks was only 17, but was already a student at Emory and Henry College, in 1929. His uncle and guardian was affluent businessman E.M. Kendricks, of the Meadowview (then called “Meadow View”) area. Sterling Dutton and Paul Phelps invited him to go for a drive on the night of May 6. The boys decided to ride around Abingdon, Virginia. The oldest boy in the car was Sterling, at 26. Phelps wasn’t much older than Kendricks, at 19.

The joviality wasn’t to last. Suddenly, a car was right on their tail. It drove erratically into the other lane and back, the other driver seemed determined to make them wreck. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, the occupants of the other vehicle opened fire. The boys were terrified, and even more so when one of the bullets pierced the vehicle and hit Kendricks in the skull. The other young men didn’t realize anything had happened until they saw Kendricks slump over in his seat. He was unresponsive.

The boys rushed Kendricks to Abingdon General Hospital. One of them summoned his uncle and guardian, E.M. Kendricks. J.W. lived about 20 hours before he died. He never woke up.

E.M. Kendricks grew livid as time passed and not a single action was taken against the men responsible for shooting his nephew. Kendricks decided to push the matter, himself, a few days later. He declared he would spend every dime he had in the pursuit of justice. He swore out a joint indictment for the three officers involved: Deputy James H. Crowe, Deputy William Worley, and Officer James McReynolds. The officers were arrested, arraigned, and each was released on a $5,000.

The student body at Emory & Henry was not impressed with the official response, either. They petitioned Virginia Governor Harry Byrd to see that justice was served. The petition also alleged that Washington County authorities were far too eager to shoot without reason, and frequently searched automobiles without a warrant. Gov. Byrd refused to intervene and declared it a matter for the county authorities. Byrd’s inattention didn’t sway the public outcry. There were constant rumors of mob violence. The officers in question were forced into seclusion in surrounding areas. Crowe fled to Bristol.

Deputy Crowe was the first to go on trial in June. Crowe said they tried yelling at the young men to pull over. He claimed they noticed Sterling Dutton and Paul Phelps in the car. Most lawmen in the area knew Phelps had a previous conviction for transporting illegal whiskey. The officers stated that Phelps was drunk that night. They said they just tried to shoot out the tires and then one of them witnessed an occupant of the vehicle throw something out the window before the they stopped. The defense even tried to say Kendricks wasn’t in the automobile at all, but had been shot elsewhere. There was no explanation as to how he would’ve gotten in Phelps car, if shot elsewhere.

Unfortunately, witnesses and evidence didn’t agree with the officers. Physicians didn’t just treat Kendricks, they also treated Phelps and Dutton. None of the young men had any trace of alcohol in their bodies. No liquor was found in the vehicle. There was also many feet between the tires and where Kendricks was sitting. The youths in the car testified they initially believed the officers were highwaymen or robbers.

There were inconsistencies all around. No one could say precisely what started the incident. Some people said the boys were disturbing the peace and the police were called. Crowe and the other two lawmen claimed they were at a garage when it began. They said Phelps got into his car and sped away, drunk. The issue of Kendricks threw that story. For that to be true, Kendricks  had to be just sitting at the garage after he was shot. It also begged the question if Sterling and Dutton would really wait until after a car chase and shootout to get their previously wounded friend to the hospital.

The jury didn’t know what to do with Crowe. The prosecution asked for a second-degree murder sentence. It was then declared a mistrial and a new trial was scheduled for September. The trial never happened.

Worley had his trial first in October. He was fined $400 for involuntary manslaughter. Crowe finally had his second trial. It was yet another mistrial. McReynolds was driving the car, so he never fired a weapon. He was acquitted on July 2, 1930.

Prohibition continued until 1933. “Prohibition Raiders,” were locals in charge of apprehending bootleggers and “rum runners.” They were paid for their busts, be it individuals or illicit liquor caches. How much the men got for their pursuit, or killing, was never established. There were no further proceedings against the dry killers.

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